Fireworks are used at every major celebration all around the world and it’s probably a bit of a downer to start analyzing just how bad they can be for the environment. Along with other fun stuff (helium balloons and confetti, the paint from paintball and shotgun pellets) they have a dark side. Remember, what goes up, must come down!
Their exciting appearance is the result of a variety of toxic chemicals: gunpowder, metallic compounds that give them their colour, carcinogenic and hormone-disrupting substances that contaminate soil and water, perchlorates, and air pollutants in their smoke. Some of these things are linked to hypothyroidism, anaemia or cancer. Plus afterwards, there are heaps of paper, metal and plastic fragments dumped far and wide and not only is this garbage, but it can be ingested by animals, or can break down into the environment in water and soil.
Pets are always upset by the noise and in fact, the sound of the explosions is not legislated as it is not seen by authorities as a ‘continuous event’ and the blasts are only short. Sadly, dogs, with their acute hearing, are badly affected as are nesting birds. Tinnitus sufferers are also in pain.
Traditional firework nights include Diwali, Chinese New Year and Moon Festival, New Year’s Eve, Guy Fawkes night and national festivals. But it seems that the use of elaborate fireworks displays is increasing. In most nations, you need a permit (not so in Asia and South East Asia). In Mexico, for instance, fireworks in some regions are controlled by the church and others by the local hotels which mount their own short displays every night. Yes. On a rotational basis, one hotel at a time shoots off a few rockets. Religious Pilgrimages often are accompanied by constant rockets and fireworks.
Fireworks such as rockets that are propelled upwards minimum 3 metres have been measured at 190 decibels EACH which is just double the safe level for the human ear. If you are anxious about this, use ear plugs, plus earmuffs and wrap a muffler around your forehead to stop any entry of noise from the front and back.
I have commissioned many a fireworks display over the years. Personal crackers and rockets are illegal in Australia but the professional designers are super careful. Not so here in Mexico. The wonky frames that support their amazing displays are precarious and we have movie footage of a chap climbing up to restart Catherine Wheels that stalled. Right through the middle of the burning framework! Heaven knows what it did to his lungs.
Here’s a Youtube link to the Guiness Book of Records biggest display ever,
Here’s a list of some of the stuff in fireworks:
Gunpowder, (potassium nitrate) feeds oxygen to the fire, helping it quickly burn the charcoal-sulphur fuel and the resulting gases expand superfast to propel anything in their way. That could be a bullet or a firework.
Perchlorates and particulates
The fuel is a blend of charcoal and sulphur particles of varying sizes. Potassium nitrate provides that whoosh of rapid burning oxygen and all three together are ‘gunpowder’.
Perchlorates, have a central chlorine atom bonded by four oxygen atoms. Potassium perchlorate and ammonium perchlorate are the modern, stable oxidizers for fireworks.
They are linked to a failure of the human thyroid gland’s ability to harvest iodine from the bloodstream, hypothyroidism a probable result. Pregnant women should not stand anywhere near modern fireworks.
As well the fallout from fireworks could lift perchlorate levels in waterways and soil around regular fireworks sites (eg. Sydney Harbour - check the fish and oysters – or at least relocate the fireworks occasionally).
Smoke from fireworks’ burned charcoal and sulphur fuel contains particulate matter that is hazardous for those with asthma or chemical sensitivities. The particulates are the same as in diesel exhaust ( beware those trucks with their gushing diesel chimneys) and lung cancer has been linked. Tests done in the USA on air quality for 3 hours after fireworks show a definite rise in particulates.
These results all dissipate after 3 or 4 hours.
These are what create the variety of colours so amazing in fireworks.
- Strontium (silvery yellow metal – red when burning): Reactive with both air and water, potentially radioactive. Some strontium compounds dissolve in water, others sink into soil and groundwater. Radioactive strontium has a half-life of 29 years. In high doses radioactive strontium affects bone marrow, causes anaemia and stops blood from clotting and birth defects have been noted.
- Aluminum (sharp white) – Linked to Alzheimer’s disease, tests/research still in progress.
- Copper (aqua blue) - When the perchlorates are burnt, copper creates dioxins causing chloracne, a severe skin disease with acne-like lesions mostly on the face and upper body. Dioxin is a human carcinogen interrupting hormone production and glucose metabolism.
- Barium (silvery white but green spectrum when burnt). This is a problem around water as fish and other aquatic organisms accumulate barium and affect the whole food chain. Barium forms a variety of compounds that can cause gastrointestinal problems and muscular weakness, vomiting, diarrohea, breathing trouble, changes in blood pressure, facial numbness like Bell’s Palsy, general muscle weakness and cramps, changes in heart rhythm, paralysis or death.
- Rubidium (silvery-white but purple when burnt). Very flammable. Can cause skin irritation since it’s so reactive with moisture, and it’s toxic when ingested, and leaches calcium from bones.
- Cadmium (all the colours of the rainbow) – A known human carcinogen it can damage the lungs and ingestion it causes vomiting and diarrohea. Long-term exposure may result in kidney disease, lung damage and fragile bones. Plants, fish and other animals absorb cadmium from the environment affecting anything above them in the food chain.
Sparklers – burn at 1200 degrees Fahrenheit!!!
That’s “green” as in environmentally friendly.
There are some companies producing nitrogen based fireworks less dangerous to the air and Disney has been trialling these perchlorate-free fireworks but they are not yet in general use.
So what about a Laser show instead?
Well, then there is the issue of the high amount of energy required to run the laser machines and full rehearsal. The reflective and refractive qualities of the smoke used in laser shows means it is a must for clear visibility but it stinks and is oily. Glycerin or glycol mixed with water is used but you can use cooking oil (though it smells worse and gets sticky.)
The fog is created using propylene glycol and triethylene glycol, (which are similar to ingredients in some weed killers) mixed with 20 percent water which can be a problem for asthmatics. Singers on stage often complain about the fog and how it stops their breath. However, they have been tested and are the lesser of two evils! Also laser displays can go on for ages but fireworks go ‘kaboom’ all too fast.
Why are we so besotted with our fireworks? The bottom line is that they are a bit ho-hum and common these days and it is a lot of money going up in smoke when the world can least afford it!